Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said Thursday he would support a federal investigation into Las Vegas police shootings, lending weight to recent calls by civil rights groups for such a probe.
"I don't see it as a bad thing that the Department of Justice comes here and takes a look at us," he said during an interview with the Review-Journal on Thursday.
Gillespie's response was unprecedented for the department -- federal intervention has the potential to significantly reform how the department uses deadly force -- and was praised by local groups.
The reaction comes amid a storm of public scrutiny over the fatal shooting of an unarmed, disabled veteran less than two weeks after a Review-Journal investigation exposed problems in the way the department handles shootings and problem officers.
Gillespie said the shooting and the series "increased, in my mind, the level of urgency" in considering changes.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP called for the Justice Department to open a "pattern or practice" investigation into how the department uses deadly force.
Three shootings in 18 months have generated significant controversy. Two of them, including Monday's death of Stanley Gibson, 43, involved black men.
Both groups came to the decisions on their own, simultaneously, and they will be drafting a request together, according to Dane Claussen, executive director for the ACLU of Nevada. Claussen called the sheriff's response a "very positive development."
Richard Boulware, a federal public defender and first vice president of the local NAACP chapter, said he was not surprised by the sheriff's actions because the sheriff has been open to change in the past.
"I think he recognizes there are issues here that require fundamental change," he said.
Gillespie said he has reached out to the local FBI office and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to understand what a "pattern or practice" investigation will entail. He has not heard back from officials in Washington. A spokeswoman said Wednesday the agency already is reviewing a request to investigate.
"If the DOJ would choose to come here, it would not be an adversarial relationship," Gillespie said. "We'll participate in the process."
The Justice Department has the authority to open "pattern or practice" investigations into potential systemic civil rights violations at police agencies, such as racial profiling, excessive force and internal discrimination. The investigations focus on department policies, procedures and training instead of specific incidents.
In the past year, the agency has opened investigations into at least two big-city police departments -- Portland, Ore., and Miami -- over officer-involved shootings. Any action in Las Vegas is likely many months away.
Gillespie said he is looking at making changes and already is doing things that the Justice Department has recommended in other cities. He said he welcomes new ideas but understands the significance of an investigation.
"It's one of these issues where if people ask you as head of a law enforcement agency what keeps you up at night, one of those things that's there is this. Because it's infrequent," he said of a federal investigation. "It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it's very impactful."
Monday's fatal shooting of Gibson was the 12th by Las Vegas police officers this year, a record for the department. Gibson may have been confused and disoriented in the moments before officer Jesus Arevalo fired several times into the Gulf War veteran's unmoving car, killing him.
A breakdown in communication between supervisors and officers might have contributed to the death, sources have told the Review-Journal. Arevalo, who has been placed on routine paid administrative leave, fired after another officer shot a round from a beanbag shotgun into Gibson's car.
The sheriff on Thursday would not comment on Monday's shooting of Gibson, citing the department's ongoing investigation. Gillespie said he would hold a news conference explaining its findings.
"Any time you shoot someone who ends up being unarmed, difficult questions have to be asked," Gillespie said.
Steve Rothlein, a police policies expert who retired as second-in-command of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said Gillespie deserves credit for being open to outside scrutiny.
Some law enforcement leaders embrace the oversight and help create lasting change in their organizations, he said, while others resist opening their agencies, fearing the exposure of internal problems.
"For the sheriff to be willing to validate his own policies and be open to change, I think it speaks well of his credibility," Rothlein said.